Every Wednesday, representatives of Senator José M. Serrano come to the Roosevelt Island Senior Center for office hours. Typically, their stay is uneventful. That wasn’t the case the first Wednesday in July when tens of seniors gathered in front of the Senior Center entrance to protest and voice concerns about the recent change in the center’s management. Eric Rivera, the Senator’s aid, managed the impromptu meeting respectfully and thoughtfully.
As of July 1, The Carter Burden Center for the Aging (Carter Burden) took over management of the Center. Armed with a petition, and led by Roosevelt Island Senior Association (RISA) member Joan Markey, the group expressed frustration with the new lower hourly rate for class instructors, the new requirement for art teachers to pay for their own supplies, and what they perceived as a disorganized transfer of responsibilities and lack of communication.
A few days later, more concerns surfaced about the operations and hours of the cooling center that is supposed to be provided by the Senior Center. Members found that on a few occasions, during various heat waves in July, the Senior Center failed to stay open, sometimes entirely and at other times for the duration of the hours required.
Established in 1971, Carter Burden was founded to provide quality care, enrichment, and safety to seniors in the City, with particular focus on low-income seniors who are underserved and isolated. Island seniors charge that the execution of this mission at the Roosevelt Island Senior Center has been less than impressive.
Carter Burden pays $30 per hour to all instructors across the six centers under its management. Prior to the takeover, some instructors at the Roosevelt Island Senior Center were earning more. Yvette Brown, a PhD from Seton Hall University who taught eight exercise classes at the center, and Rob Hoffman, a certified teacher who was at the center for years as well, left due to this change – one they assert was not communicated to them or any of the other employees in advance, and for which no negotiations were offered.
The group also expressed concern about a lack of communication between the new management and members of the Senior Center. According to member Vicki Feinmel, who regularly took exercise classes at the center, changes in classes’ locations and overall logistics were not announced, and the end result has been “confusion and discomfort to seniors accustomed to stability and cohesion.”
The National Institute of Health cites numerous studies showing the benefits even moderate exercise offers to aging adults, both those becoming frail or suffering from age-related diseases and those still healthy.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report by the Surgeon General suggesting consistent exercise reduces the risk of falling, bone fracturing, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression.
Current Associate Executive Director for Social Service Programs Velda Murad acknowledges that there have been missteps. “The [RISA members] are right,” says Murad. “They should come and talk to us; we want to work collaboratively.”
A month into the transition, Bill Dionne, the Executive Director of the Carter Burden Center, has assured The WIRE that additional instructors for exercise and art classes have been engaged and more are likely to be added as the center continues to search for qualified classes. “Utilizing more than half of these funds to pay for classes taught by one instructor is not feasible,” he wrote The WIRE, “although we [Carter Burden] do regret that this represents a loss for a number of class participants.”
To fill the void of classes that are still missing, RISA is sponsoring a pilot program, along with Roosevelt Landings management which donated a 12th floor community room for classes. Two classes are now offered on Tuesday and Wednesday, one each led by favorite teachers Brown and Hoffman. “The program will run for eight weeks as a pilot and started this week August 2 and 3,” said Barbara Parker, RISA President. The cost, she adds, is “$27.00 for the entire 8 weeks, which works out to be $3.37 per class.” The maximum number of participants is 15-20, which is all the space allows. Parker is adamant that “the programs are not in competition with the Burden Center programs, but to assist and help our members. Both organizations exist within the facility with different programs.”
Dionne regrets the natural “growing pains” of the programmatic transition, but has taken concrete steps to listen and involve members. He held an open meeting on July 29, which was well attended. In the meeting, Dionne provided an update on what management had learned from their first month, his commitment to maximize the teaching consultants budget for seniors and to share initial results from the member survey. The survey queried seniors on the activities they currently participate in, what they’d like to see offered, and their opinions about the food. The Center, under his leadership, intends to form an Advisory Council in order to continue to forge relationships with Island seniors and continuously serve their needs.
Another meeting is to be held during the month of September.